A Very Berwick History – part 2 – Christmas in the early 19th century

Most of us will be familiar with Charles Dicken’s famous novella from 1843, A Christmas Carol, which, together with some of his other works, have influenced what we think of as a “traditional” Christmas.  But a glance at others’ writings from a bit closer to home paints a different picture.

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A traditional Father Christmas.  The coat might be green, brown, red or yellow but red stuck after the famous 1931 Coca-cola advert.

John Mackay Wilson was born in Tweedmouth in 1804.  After an unpromising early career he became editor of The Berwick Advertiser in 1834.  He was able to publish his own works. 

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John Mackay Wilson, 1804-35.

The Vacant Chair starts with a description of a Christmas meal on a farmhouse table that straddles the border.  This was the first of what were to become the highly successful Tales of The Borders

“The guests were assembled; and the kitchen being the only apartment in the building large enough to contain them, the cloth was spread upon a long, clear, oaken table, stretching from England into Scotland.  On the English end of the board were placed a ponderous plum-pudding, studded with temptation, and a smoking sirloin; on Scotland, a savoury and well-seasoned haggis, with a sheep’s-head and trotters; while the intermediate space was filled with the good things of this life, common to both kingdoms and to the season.”

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Illustration from The Vacant Chair.

Christmas has always been more of an English tradition, the Scots celebrating Hogmany.  This is certainly the observation of Frederick Sheldon (c1820-51).  He was born in Newcastle and after some small roles on the stage, he attempted but failed to run a theatre in Berwick in about 1840.  Influenced by Sir Walter Scott, he turned his hand at writing.  Much of his output was a Northumbrian version of Scott’s Minstrelsy

For most though, he will be best remembered for his History of Berwick-upon-Tweed, published in 1849.  While not to be trusted on its accuracy it has some lovely turns of phrase and many of the episodes he records he would have witnessed.  On the subject of festivals, he rather dismisses Christmas – perhaps not a case of “Humbug!”, so much as “Berwick Cockle!”.

He writes:

“Christmas is not kept up here with that glee and mirth, that ostentatious display of mince-pies, plum-puddings, and roast beef, which every town in England wallows in on that sacred anniversary; but New Year’s Eve and Day is the season of joy, the saturnalia of rich and poor, old and young.  On the eve of the New Year, until the morning, bands of adventurous youths wander all the night about the streets, and careful friends hurry to their friends’ houses, to be what they term “the first foot”.  

A woman is held unlucky as a first foot, and, if possible, the door is not opened until some acquaintance or relative arrives with a bottle of Glenlivet.  To come empty-handed is esteemed unlucky.  A person of literary merit informed me that an old carter broke his arm about the beginning of April, and as he lay in bed, he vainly endeavoured to recollect of any ill he had been guilty of, until he remembered that he had admitted, as his first-foot, a woman who squinted very much, and who craved permission to light her pipe.”

The first-foots are regaled with cake, and cheese, and the never-failing spirits; and thus the old town of Berwick is kept alive during the gloom and cold of the winter’s night; and ever and anon is heard the faint song and merry chorus to some well-known ditty, as some boisterous spirits, in the words of Shakespeare, "House the night-owl with a catch.”

The first of the year is greeted with shooting at a target on the sands, for a sheep or pig.  Cock-fighting was a favourite pastime in the beginning of the present century, and many is the well-fought main the Berwick birds have won.”

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A traditional first footer brings a little something!

To my knowledge we don’t go shooting and hope we don’t go cock fighting these days.  

Do we still go first footing?  Probably not everyone goes round with a bottle of best malt, that’s for sure.

Whatever your choice of midwinter festival I hope it brings you everything you wish for and I bid you all good cheer!

 

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